Finding a flowering vine that will grow in shady places can be a daunting prospect. Some selections such as ivy can be invasive in some areas, and even clematis requires some sun to bloom properly. Schisandra chinensis will not only thrive in shade, it produces flowers similar to a magnolia and even edible fruit. Self-fertile and hardy in zones 4 through 8, this is a little known and underutilized plant.
Schisandra is a fast grower once established, and has a definite twining habit. Although the vines can reach twenty to twenty-five feet, it has no aggressive tendencies. It will twine on its own, but it can be tied to supports to direct growth. Decidous foliage is glossy green and grows denser with age. Flowers are most often white, sometimes tinged with pale pink, and closely resemble a magnolia in shape. Bright red fruit is produced in late summer, born in heavy clusters. Some culitvars are self fertile, others require a ‘male’ vine as a pollinizer.
Schizandra grandiflora var. rubiflora is worth growing for its unusual flowers alone. Bright red buds open to reveal crimson blooms. This species flowers so heavily it appears the vine is dotted with scarlet Christmas bulbs. Although rubiflora will pollinate other Schisandra varieties, it is considered a ‘male’ plant and will not bear fruit.
The fruit itself is rather tart with an odd, almost clove-like flavor. It can be dried, juiced, or made into jelly. The fruit clusters are ornamental in their own right, the grapelike bunches contrasting well with the glossy green foliage.
Schizandra is very easy to grow. Soil should be loamy and well reasonably well drained. The roots should be shaded completely for the most part, but the top vining portion of the plant can take some morning sun. Pruning off the spent flowers will often encourage a second blooming period before fall. If the plant is being grown as an ornamental, a light yearly pruning to remove excess growth is all that is needed. For fruit production, the vine should be cut back hard every other year very early in the spring.
Schizandra can be trained up a pergola, or against a wall or fence as an informal espalier. Its non-invasive growth habit makes it companionable with other shade loving plants. It can be grown next to, and allowed to twine through the foliage of evergreen shrubs such as rhododendrons without problems. In fact, this is one of the most well behaved ornamental vines. The base of the magnolia vine tends to become woodier and bare of foliage with age. Underplantings of large leaved perennials such as hosta and bergenia can help disguise this, and small evergreen shrubs such as azalea will grow happily at the base.
A yearly top dressing of compost will provide most of the nutrients this vine needs. A mulch of ground bark will keep down weeds and help to acidify the soil slightly. Water needs are moderate, the first few years of growth being the most crucial. Schisandra is hardy in zones 4 through 9.